Jersey City’s Composting Program Expands During a Pandemic

The citywide program has diverted 50,000 pounds of food waste from landfills so far.

(Photo: Jersey City)

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When Melissa Kozakiewicz, chief innovation officer for the city of Jersey City, helped launch the citywide compost program, she assumed her office would have to invest heavily in teaching people how to compost.

“We thought the first year was going to be all about culture change, saying the word composting a bunch of times and making sure Jersey City saw what was on the horizon,” she remembers. “But we were wrong. Jersey City already knew about it, across the city, and was ready to go.”

Since the program kicked off two years ago, over 50,000 pounds of disposable waste have been diverted from landfills and instead used to fertilize home gardens, parks and community gardens across the city. This summer, despite the pandemic, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop announced an expansion for the program with more dropoff sites and soon-to-come pilot for curbside pickup, using e-bikes.

The city program built off several years of local grassroots organizing around composting. With so many residents eager to participate with the city, it’s pushed local officials and environmentalists to consider infrastructure that can integrate composting as a main component of the city’s waste removal.

“Every time we add another piece to [the program], it just immediately takes off,” Kozakiewicz says. “We’re really excited by how Jersey City has embraced this program.”

Jersey City’s composting effort goes back to the launch of Sustainable Jersey City, a collaboration between local environmental groups, in 2011. The organization’s initial focus was on green infrastructure and stormwater management, but it quickly added food waste recycling to the list. “We had been very involved with the community garden network in Jersey City, and at one of the community garden sites we launched different forms of demonstration projects for composting,” explains founder Debra Italiano.

Sustainable Jersey City officially launched its compost program at the St. Paul’s P.E.A.C.E. Garden in 2014 using a unique type of food recycling called bokashi, in which microbes break down food through fermentation. One of the advantages of bokashi is that it can be done in a small space, so the organization created a bucket exchange program so that community members without backyards could participate.

“There aren’t very many backyards in the city, as you might imagine, so we wanted to show that you could do this without a backyard composting program,” Italiano explains. For the so-called “Bokashi Bucket Exchange,” participants are given an empty 5-gallon bucket to take home and fill with food scraps. Once full, the bucket is returned to the community garden and exchanged for a new one.

On top of the bokashi program, Sustainable Jersey City hosted workshops and developed educational materials on the different ways to compost, from backyard composting to subscribing with a third-party pickup service. The organization also worked in partnership with the city’s community garden network, providing technical assistance on composting.

When the city decided to formalize composting, it tapped into that network as well as a host of potential partners. “You can’t do a citywide culture shift without embracing partners in every field,” says Kozakiewicz. Besides early partnerships with Sustainable Jersey City and Greener JC, the city reached out to the public library system, faith-based organizations, schools and parks advocates to figure out a system that could work. “We took the time to talk one-on-one with people, to really talk them through this as opposed to sending them to a website,” she adds.

The city decided to target community gardens to launch the first iteration of the program in 2018. The city invested roughly $15,000 into three gardens to build three-bin composting systems. The city also provided additional stipends for garden volunteers to accept compost from any Jersey City residents during certain timeframes.

The city then collected data around compost collection, which quickly took off. When community gardens closed for the winter, the city hired Community Compost Company to pick up compost from city-designated drop-off sites. “The idea was to put a toter out for them to pick up,” says Kozakiewicz. “We weren’t sure if it would get used as a garbage can, and it just wasn’t.”

Given that success, the city expanded its dropoff sites this summer from three to eleven. There’s now a mix of community gardens (where volunteers mix compost into bins on-site) and unstaffed drop off bins (where Community Compost Company continues to pick up the scraps and then partners with farms to process into compost). The attitude with installation? More is better. “When someone mentions that they’d like a dropoff site in their neighborhood, I just say ‘sure — where do you want it?’” says Kozakiewicz. There are now drop off sites at a local library, synagogue, farmers market, public parks, City Hall and the Department of Public Works.

For residents with backyards, the city created a backyard composting program, giving households free bins to process kitchen scraps into finished organic compost for use in their own gardens. Because the Office of Innovation has led the initiative, it has been defined by its flexibility, according to Kozakiewicz. “The mayor is very flexible and creative,” she adds. “That leadership has allowed us to feel like we can do that too.”

The next level of innovation will come in the form of curbside pickup, powered by city staff riding electric cargo bikes. The cargo bikes are able to travel citywide and carry 200 pounds of compost per trip. Residents had expressed an interest in a curbside pickup program and Kozakiewicz saw it in the works during a vacation to London. This summer the city distributed a curbside sign-up form and hopes to launch the pilot this fall; 153 residents have registered.

Kozakiewicz says COVID-19 has only increased citywide interest in the program. But there is a big challenge to scaling the program to bring it on par with trash collection. “The East Coast really needs to catch up in terms of its infrastructure — we don’t have that yet,” she says. Cities like San Francisco send scraps to a compost processing plant that sorts out contaminants, breaks down food scraps at a large scale and sells the resulting compost to local farms. The Jersey City compost picked up by Community Compost Company is processed at a smaller facility on a private farm in upstate New York.

Kozakiewicz envisions neighborhood-based digesters that can produce compost on a local level.

Sustainable Jersey City is doing work along those lines as it develops “neighborhood nodes” within community gardens to accept compost. Italiano points to the many opportunities as composting increases, including using compost to care for city trees. (The organization is currently conducting a tree mapping census to track where the city has lost trees to new development.)

The work so far proved to Kozakiewicz that the challenge with citywide composting is less about getting the public on board and more about creating frameworks to facilitate composting at a large scale. “Any concern about who’s ready for composting — well, everybody’s ready,” she says. “There is no question about it in my mind.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: waste managementjersey cityzero waste

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